QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peakes humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca Peake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.

The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.

Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.

The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.

Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.

Royal Exchange Theatre until 28th July

Images by Keith Pattison

Happy Days

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

In the opening minutes of Happy Days there is a strangely surreal sense of reassuring normality as Winnie methodically cleans her teeth and applies her lipstick. Yet this women is inexplicably trapped from the waist down in a mound of barren earth like the Queen of a floating island which is brilliantly evoked by Designer Naomi Dawson. Director Sarah Frankcom and Associate Artist Maxine Peake have joined forces on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It is a stunningly evoked vision of some kind of absurdist prison or hellish afterlife or perhaps, simply an allegory of a marriage gone stale.

Maxine Peake draws on all her acting skills and delivers a Winnie who shimmers in the harsh sunlight and gleams as the light finally fades. She is girlish and gay or plaintive and rueful. There is quite simply nowhere to hide in this production, nor are there cues from other actors as Willie is always out of her sight even when he is near her. Peake is just sublime throughout, brittlely blithe and gay in Act 1 and pitifully sunken eyed and unkempt in Act 2. With a camera zoomed in on just her face and every tiny expression projected on monitors above her, she never wavers. Her Winnie is runny nosed with an aged voice, seemingly forgotten like an O.A.P in a sub-standard carehome.

She is the quintessential upper middle class British woman who was probably a pre-war d├ębutante brought up to be pretty, charming and cheerful but also brave and stoic in the face of adversity. She reminded me of the Stephanie Beacham’s Rose in Tenko years ago. A delicate beauty who could still ooze pure class and glamour in rags, and who had cut glass vowels and cheekbones with a backbone seemingly formed of pure steel. Certainly Winnie keeps returning to the past to speak in the old style or recall past moments when she was young, foolish, beautiful while holding unto the classics to not forget familiar anchors. She is terrified of losing those anchors to sanity yet can also blithely ask Willie What is that unforgettable line?

It is the vulnerability of the human condition that pains Winnie more than the actual paralysis. What is most important is to be heard as a way of validating sanity and existence. She prattles away to Willie pastiming through the horror of her predicament as a coping mechanism. The maintenance of small routines and the comfort of Willie and the bag are her anchors to ensure she holds unto sanity and to gravity. Even as a husk of her former self in the second act unable to utilise these comforts she wills herself to focus on them as tangible memories, seeing Willie again and singing her song from the now out of reach music box.

This play is a study in mindfulness reminding us all how to harness our senses and focus back in on the little things. In a world where we are often surrounded by the incessant noise of people, media, memes and madness, Winnie’s plight is terrifying yet also an invitation to slow down and stay in the moment.

Royal Exchange 25 May – 23 June

Images by Johan Persson

The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight

Created by Maxine Peake for Hull Truck Theatre and Uk City of Culture this is an unforgettable march through the corridors of power walking in the shabby down at heel shoes of the leader of the Headscarf revolutionaries Lillian Bilocca.

It celebrates the determination and fortitude of a group of working class woman who nearly 40 years ago “achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years” The tightknit community around Hessle Road were all connected to the fishing industry. In early 1968 three trawlers were lost at sea with a loss of 58 men over 26 days. It was the woman as wives, mothers, sisters, lovers who rose up and said “enough is enough.” Led by Lillian they gathered 10,000 signatures and stormed the offices of the trawler owners and went to parliament to meet the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The result changed the shipping laws and The Fisherman‘s Charter saved countless lives in the fishing industry.

Sarah Frankcom and Imogen have done a wonderful job in the The Guild Hall to bring realise this ambitious promenade performance. A live folk band courtesy of the wonderful Adrian McNally and The Unthanks are in full swing at The Silver Cod Ball. The stuffy ornately dressed couples move stiffly round the dance floor as we watch them celebrate the spoils of the trawler industry.

The arrival of Helen Carter as Lillian is the first sign of real life in this grand reception room. Clad in shabby shoes with a neat buttoned up blue coat and a matching chiffon headscarf she reminds me of early memories of my own mother. She too campaigned on a social issue and refused to be silenced and also met a government minister to have a statute changed. It is a very powerful emotional moment making that sudden connection with my own strong, bolshy mother. As more strong women from The Hessle Road Womens Committee appear the energy continues to build.
The arrival of The Three Day Millionaires brings testosterone, Brylcreem and Old Spice. The dance floor becomes the local pub and suddenly there is lust and life and love and fisticuffs as the booze flows. This is a vivid snapshot of men home for three days who have been spared an icy drowning and are reunited with their womenfolk. A temporary relief from knawing fear of death and a fistfull of cash is a heady cocktail.

The promenade takes us through the corridors of power where endless portraits of men of power stare down at us. We pass women thanking us for our support and enter a Council boardroom with Yvonne Blenkinsop played by Katherine Pearce holding the hand of her young son. Standing on the table she summons up the experience of waiting, worrying and grieving. As each woman steps forward to tell their story it reinforces the sense of what drove these ordinary woman to step up and do something extraordinary.

Subsequent scenes evoke the dead and dying men swathed in icy fog. Pleading, wild eyed and clammy with desperation they are a ghostly tableau. The main council chamber is dimly lit by tealights burning in mismatched teacups – possibly a light to represent each of the 58 men lost? At the centre is a haunting set comprised of a simple kitchen sink unit and a formica table. As we listen with headphones to a soundtrack of a storm and its aftermath we watch a snapshot of acute loss. A woman seeks the smell of her dead husband in his last white shirt. Later she dons the soaking wet garment and stands dripping like a lost siren of the sea.

The grand dinner at The Silver Cod Ball seats the audience at the dinner tables with the trawler owners at the top table. Stony faced, stony hearted and stony earred to the pleas of the women they look on with disdain at these earthy, passionate requests. The silver cod is like a coffin filled with blood money, and Lillian approaches me with a crumpled handful of banknotes asking “Is this what our men are worth?” Strident, rough edged and ardent these women shocked and shamed many of their own men by their actions. It was a bittersweet success as Lillian Bilocca was blacklisted and never worked in the industry again.

The final scenes of this production are stunningly effective and incredibly moving. The original music by The Unthanks for this production is sublime and gorgeous. It is a fitting end to hear the echo of exquisite voices fade away like waves on an ebbing tide. Unforgettable.

The Guild Hall, Hull 3-18 November

Hull Truck Theatre

Photographs by Andrew Billington.